Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic, Keep a Watchful Eye on China's Military | Opinion

The world as seen by Xi Jinping is different from it was in January 2016.

At the time, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was strong at home, as its power and prestige were growing abroad. Hong Kong was prosperous and quiescent. The "rebellious province of Taiwan" was ruled by President Ma Ying-Jeou, a politician favoring eventual unification with mainland China. The U.S. "pivot" toward Asia under President Barack Obama was long on rhetoric and short on military power to back it up. And China's illegal military base-building in the South China Sea was largely complete and unchallenged.

In sum, China was rapidly building up and modernizing its military forces, supported by a rapidly growing economy. Its naval construction program, with a second aircraft carrier under construction, was producing more tonnage than the U.S. and Japan combined, while the U.S. fleet was at its smallest since 1916.

In short, time and the correlation of forces favored the People's Republic of China. But the world does not follow the laws of history, not for the old Soviet Union and not for Communist China.

China Virus reaction
On CCTV's March 10 evening newscast, a large screen reflected in a bus window shows Chinese President Xi Jinping wearing a protective mask during his visit to Wuhan earlier in the day. Getty

In a few short years following President Donald Trump's election, the powerful status quo providing China with investment dollars and U.S. know-how, with China providing cheap and plentiful goods in return, was shattered. By late 2019, China's economic growth had decelerated to its slowest pace since 1991.

Then, on December 1, 2019, Wuhan's Patient Zero first started manifesting symptoms of exposure to the novel coronavirus. Within three weeks, doctors in Wuhan detected a cluster of pneumonia cases, with word of the "Wuhan flu" leaking out to the world.

How the new deadly virus first made its appearance in China remains a mystery. It might have jumped from the bats sold in "wet markets" trafficking in exotic animals for human consumption. Wuhan is also home to China's sole level 4 microbiology laboratory, a lab that is known to conduct experiments on coronaviruses. Some theorize that lab workers either sold animals used in experiments to the wet markets or simply violated the strict containment protocols required to prevent the virus' escape.

Regardless of the virus' origins, the CCP's penchant for secrecy and total information control quickly resulted in a massive cover-up, with the numbers of infected and dead being underreported and manipulated to give the impression that the nation's totalitarian system was effectively stopping the virus.

This early deception lulled many U.S. public health experts into a false sense of security, while China and the World Health Organization implored Trump to not impose travel restrictions, which he announced on January 31.

As the virus spread in China, its economy suffered a devastating blow, undermining the CCP's main domestic claim to legitimacy—a thriving economy.

In the U.S., the models are still widely divergent in forecasting infections and fatalities—an ongoing deadly ripple from China's early lies. However, economic models predict a depression-level downturn in the economy over the next two quarters, followed by a modest rebound. Unemployment is expected to rise by 5 to 15 percent.

In response, Congress approved a series of bills, with spending and loans exceeding $2 trillion—about double what America spent to fight World War II in 1944, our peak effort, in inflation-adjusted dollars.

In the middle of this costly and frightening crisis, ominous clouds of a different sort have been gathering in Asia. Soon after Taiwan's nominally pro-independence president, Tsai Ing-wen, was re-elected on January 11, the CCP was faced with a stark landscape that included a range of existentially important issues. Short of military action, Taiwan was lost. The Chinese economy was weak and not likely to return to the good old days—with U.S. tariffs, and now the virus, encouraging U.S. supply chains to shift out of China.

A brief overview of key events since Taiwan's election and the virus' outbreak, some of which are found in a more detailed summary by John Dotson writing in the Jamestown Foundation's China Brief, provides an unsettling picture.

February 9

The People's Liberation Army Air Force flies a formation of fighters, bombers and early-warning radar aircraft over the median line of the Taiwan Strait, the traditional air boundary between Taiwan and Communist China. Taiwan scrambles F-16s.

Chinese naval and air forces conduct a two-day exercise south of Taiwan, with China's government media tying the maneuvers to Taiwan "increasingly colluding with the U.S." while seeking "independence."

February 17

A Chinese warship lases a U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft in international waters about 380 miles west of Guam. The laser could have caused permanent eye damage to the American crew.

March 16

Two Taiwanese coast guard patrol cutters are removing illegal fishing nets off of Kinmen Island (also known as Quemoy), a Taiwanese-held island some 1.2 miles off the strategic mainland Chinese port of Xiamen, when more than 10 speedboats, likely Chinese maritime militia, swarm and ram the Taiwanese vessels. Taiwanese authorities call the action unprecedented in size and violence.

In the first night operation of this nature, China's Air Force sends several combat aircraft across the Taiwan Strait median line. Taiwan intercepts the flights with F-16 fighters.

March 26

Trump signs the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative, known as the TAIPEI Act, into law. The measure clarifies and restates support for a free and democratic Taiwan.

Japan deploys surface-to-air and anti-ship missile batteries and 340 troops to Miyakojima Island. The move was telegraphed 11 months earlier by Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya when he described the island, which is 200 miles east of the northern tip of Taiwan, as "Japan's forefront line of defense."

March 30

A Chinese fishing boat, perhaps from the maritime militia, collides with and damages a Japanese destroyer in international waters off the coast of Shanghai.

The largest Russian naval exercise in five years forms in the North Pacific.

April 2

The U.S. announces cumulative unemployment losses of more than 10 million due to measures taken to slow the spread of the virus.

April is seen by experts as having the best weather for military operations in the Taiwan Strait, a region with notoriously difficult storms, wind, ocean currents and fog. In spite of the virus, America, Japan and Taiwan are far stronger and more resilient than the CCP may believe. Picking a fight would be foolish and destructive.

Chuck DeVore is a vice president at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a former California legislator and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army retired reserve.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.